Why We Remember: Book Review

Andrea Holck reviews Why We Remember: The Science of Memory and How it Shapes Us (Faber & Faber, 2024) by Charan Ranganath and reflects on the closeness of memory and imagination in neuroscience and fiction.

Memory as Time Travel

Early cognitive psychologist and memory researcher, Endel Tulving, described memory as “mental time travel.” He called this type of memory, the kind that enables us to re-view past events in the mind’s eye, “episodic memory”. Tulving said that we are capable of “roaming at will over what has happened as readily as over what might happen, independently of the physical laws that govern the universe.” At the time, his ideas, expressed in this way, were esoteric and controversial in the world of psychology, which had yet to break with the more simplistic stimuli-response mental model of behaviorists. His speculation that memory could be used to “reboot” the mind to a past state went far beyond the theories that memory was a matter of simple recall (Ranganath, 34).

Book Cover of Why We Remember featuring a blue background which has a fuzzy and cloudy image effect. Both the main book title and the author's name are in large white font with the fuzzy cloudiness of the background encroaching onto their edges.
Why We Remember Book Cover. Credit: Faber & Faber.

More than fifty years have passed since then, and in that time, scientists have repeatedly validated Tulving’s proposal that memory is a kind of time travel. And, though we’ve learned much about memory’s structure and function, it remains a somewhat puzzling area of neuroscientific and psychological understanding. As Charan Ranganath puts it in the early pages of his new book, Why We Remember: The Science of Memory and How It Shapes Us “memory is much, much, more than an archive of the past; it is a prism through which we see ourselves, others, and the world” (6).

How We Remember: Optimization, Efficiency and “Living Better”

Ranganath approaches the task of explaining what memory is, how it works, and how it shapes our identities, with both a scientific mind seasoned by years of experimental studies involving high-tech imaging equipment, and with an appreciation of the pseudo-mystical elusiveness that still clings to the concept of memory despite the expensive equipment and specialized language that characterises its study. We know a lot about the mind and memory, but simultaneously we’re still in the dark about most of it. 

Most of this book, however, is concerned with the more practical aspects of memory. Ranganath is eager to tell us how to utilize what we do know of memory’s particularities to make our learning more efficient, and our lives “better”. Focus on “error-driven learning,” he counsels educators. “Error-driven learning” quizzes students immediately after new material has been presented to prompt timely recall. This method reinforces learning more so than the usual method of postponing tests until long after material has been introduced, which in turn encourages cramming wherein material is held in the short-term memory but is quickly forgotten after the test (158). 

There are do’s and don’ts for carers of young children as well: in reviewing a day’s activities, don’t ask children to recall specific information, he advises. Instead, ask open ended questions. Co-build the memory narrative together. Doing so can positively impact their burgeoning self-concept (178). 

Crucially, he says to all of us, we must recognize the fallibility of our autobiographical memories. Memories are “updated” every time we replay them. He explains: “Accessing a memory is more like hitting “play” and “record” at the same time. Each time we revisit the past in our minds, we bring with us information from the present that can subtly, and even profoundly […] alter the content of our memories” (141). As it turns out, there is no significant neurological difference between remembering and imagining. Though there are features in place to parse out fact from fiction in most cases, our memories are highly susceptible to alterations of what we think we experienced or perceived. 

Ranganath’s book is filled with sound quotidian advice like this, advice which aims to help us “optimize” memory function to make our lives easier and more meaningful, while remaining aware of its fallibility. As an academic, my own interest in memory liesin how it shapes the narratives that make up our identities. Ranganath is not concerned with memory’s role in shaping identity in this book, despite its slightly misleading subtitle, the Science of Memory and How it Shapes Us. Instead, he wants to tell us what we can do with memory to live better, easier lives. That’s fine; the book does dispense good advice, backed up by sound evidence and lively anecdotes. But with few exceptions, Ranganath’s advice applies only to so-called “normal”, functional memories, undisturbed by disease or dysfunction. 

Making and Un-Making Identity in Time

For the past few years, I have been reading books like Ranganath’s to understand what memory and memory loss have to do with the making and unmaking of identity particularly in relation to dementia. After years of reading in both arts and sciences, I am struck by a few things: 

First: discussions of memory in any field require a poetic element. Memory simply does not lend itself well to objective, scientific language beyond the designation of particular neuroanatomical terms and processes. For example, descriptions of episodic memory require metaphor: memory is “mental time travel”. It is “pressing play”. It is the “making of a copy of a copy of a copy”. Memory is “a prism through which we see ourselves, others, and the world” (6). It is a “lens” through which we understand who we are and have been.

Second, what of disease? What of malfunction, which memory is prone to? If memory and identity are truly as enmeshed as Ranganath (and others) suggest, then what happens when the “lens” is occluded by disease? When memory retrieval, and even simple orientation in time and space, becomes difficult or impossible? If Ranganath is correct, and memory is the key to understanding who we are and have been, does that mean that the identity or self-concept of a person beset with dementia is also occluded? 

Artwork that depicts two outlines of human heads that detail different neurological pathways in the brain: one is in green, the other is red. A horizontal line of yellow dots symbolises communication between the heads while other yellow dots in vertical lines (to represent confusion or alarm) surround the head in red.
Credit: “Alzheimer’s Disease” by Stephen Magrath. Source: Wellcome Collection.

For people experiencing dementia’s memory loss-related symptoms, the answer is sometimes yes. Particularly when we think about who we are, presently. However, who a person has been often remains in sharp focus, to the point that one may feel displaced in time, experiencing themselves in the role of a past self. This is commonly described as temporal disorientation or temporal confusion. 

This happened to my own grandmother. Though now twenty years in the past, I remember it clearly. A former teacher and librarian famous for her mischievous winks and abundant laughter, she frets over her young son’s whereabouts. She cannot remember where he is but can hear him in the distance. She tries to stand, to go to him, but she can’t. She is in the late stages of dementia, and that son, my dad, sits beside me in a windowless room trying to calm her. In that moment, she appears to inhabit two timeframes. She is there with us, a frail octogenarian in her wheelchair, but she is also somewhere else – somewhen else – in the past, experiencing herself not as she is, but as she was

My own memory of the moment is suffused with the sadness of my dad, who tried to assure her that he was fine, that he was right there. But this only enhanced her distress. For my own part, I was slightly frightened, a teenager experiencing serious disease in close proximity for the first time. But I was also curious. I wanted to know what she was experiencing, what it was like. How she seemed to be inhabiting some glitch in her own narrative timeline that allowed her to be both past and present versions of herself. What if we had let her be? What if we had stopped insisting on correcting the scene for her? 

Temporal Dis/Orientation and Time Shelter

These are the kinds of questions and speculations that are tough for scientists, who do not (yet) have a way to know or explain what memories are like phenomenologically. But art and literature are uniquely placed to explore exactly these kinds of questions. In his International Booker Prize-winning novel, Time Shelter (2020), Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov uses the literary form of the novel to explore what would happen if people experiencing dementia – and others – were allowed to dwell in the “present of their past.” In his imagining, protagonist Guastine sets up “memory clinics,” places where, rather than trying to “correct” temporal disorientation in patients, he as the therapist creates “a space that is in sync with their internal time.” He admits that he doesn’t know how therapeutic it is, “but it gives these people a right to happiness, to a memory of happiness to be more precise.” He notes that, “for those who have lost their memories […] the present is a foreign country, while the past is their homeland” (42-44). 

Book cover of Time Shelter featuring a black background with five tiled artworks of domestic spaces such as a sitting room and bedroom in bright colours. Both the colours schemes and contents of each room are designed to look vintage: for example through brown and yellow patterned wallpaper or a box TV with manual aerial sitting beside a standalone record player.
Time Shelter Book Cover. Credit: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Although Gospodinov is not a neuroscientist, he does take many of the ideas Ranganath discusses in his book and uses literary narrative to expand and in some cases reorientate those ideas through the form of the novel. In his imagined clinic, treatments are not designed to coax patients out of their “remembered selves” into their present “experiencing self”. Instead, therapists and loved ones are brought into the reality of the patients’ remembered selves. Environments are curated to align with the internal time, and the goal of the whole enterprise is the patients’ happiness. In the world of the novel, temporal disorientation is not seen as pathological dysfunction, but as therapeutic; a kind of compensatory remembering preferable to the present. 

I think, again, of my grandmother. Instead of trying to assure her that he, this grown-up and unfamiliar man, was indeed her son, what if my father had leaned into her remembered past, as in Gospodinov’s memory clinics? What if he had assured her that her son was being cared for, and that there was nothing to worry about? Is there something wrong with sharing in that somewhat fabricated reality, that “present of the past” that would potentially calm the agitation that so often plagued her?

Re-Orientating Worlds Through Collective Memory

The importance of shared remembering as therapeutic method is one that Ranganath does consider briefly towards the end of his book. Though in this case, the problems of memory arise not from dementia, but from PTSD.

Ranganath was once a psychology intern at a Chicago veterans clinic. His role was to guide therapy sessions for a group of veterans experiencing PTSD. Though he admits to being skeptical of the efficacy of such a program, he found the enormous therapeutic potential of sharing memories together as a way of processing experience and re-orienting oneself in the world. “We were using the power of the group to update people’s individual memories and collectively construct shared memories centered on a new narrative that emphasized healing and empowerment,” he writes (176).  I wonder how this same kind of technique might work for people with dementia-related temporal disorientation. How collapsing the boundaries between the collective and individual memory might serve as a balm. The individualistic nature of healthcare is, after all a specifically Western model of care.

For me, this closing section was the highlight of Ranganath’s book, and I admit to wanting more. To wanting a book about memory to be not only for the able-minded or “able-memoried” but to include, as well, people whose memories are not under their control in the ways already described in Why We Remember. In the end, I am left with open questions about memory’s utility, particularly in relation to people whose medical conditions complicate easy notions of what memory is meant to be and do.

About the Author

Andrea Holck is a doctoral researcher in English Literature at City, University of London. Her research takes an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of depictions of dementia in fiction. 

References 

Eggins S. and D. Slade. 2004. Analysing Casual Conversation. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing.  

Gospodinov, Georgi. 2023. Time Shelter. Translated by Angela Rodel. London: Vintage. 

Ranganath, Charan. 2024. Why We Remember: The Science of Memory and How It Shapes Us. London: Faber & Faber.

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